Documenting the lesser known episodes in the history of Assam and presenting it to a wider audience through a digital platform, using old photographs, oral history narratives, archival documents, artefacts and architecture is the main aim of the project, Vintage Assam. We talked to founder Avinibesh Sharma about his experience.
What is the project about?
Way back in the year 1905, Sir Edward Gait, author of ‘A History of Assam’, lamented: “In the histories of India, as a whole, Assam is barely mentioned.” More than hundred years have passed since then, but Gait’s observations on the invisibility of Assam in standard historiography remain true as ever. Whereas, several events from its medieval and modern history should have been specific case studies. It has remained the benighted Cinderella province, about which renowned Parliamentarian, the late Hem Barua said, “Assam is mentally a distant horizon like Bolivia or Peru, less known and more fancied.”
It has led many to view the region through a narrow lense without being initiated to the enormous socio-cultural changes that its multi-ethnic and polyphonic society has undergone throughout its history. Moreover, it continues to be projected as a troubled region due to the incessant violence that it has faced over the last few decades.
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Project Vintage Assam attempts to challenge this dominant narrative and the prevalent stereotypes by reconstructing the modern history of Assam, revealing little-known facets of the region and bringing to fore shared histories of different communities that has so far escaped the attention of mainstream historiography. It acts as a window into the societal changes prior to and following the Second World War that not only changed the entire landscape of the region but also had its bearing on the mainland.
The catchphrase is ‘Digitising the Forgotten Past’. The project attempts to shed light on the lesser known episodes in the history of Assam and present it to a wider audience through the digital platform, using old photographs, oral history narratives, archival documents, artefacts and architecture. The website vintageassam.org is its mouthpiece of this, and we do our best to make it informative with the help of write-ups compiled from a variety of sources. Besides we employ a variety of storytelling methods to disseminate the knowledge of our rich and layered past.
How did you conceive of the project, and why? Tell us a little about yourself and how you manage project work.
I have been a passionate collector of old photographs since I was in my teens. My inspiration was my paternal grandfather. He spent his entire life in a village near the town of Jorhat and was an amateur photographer who captured events in the rural hinterland through his lens. Many of these photographs survived thanks to my grandmother, which was then passed on to me as heirloom.
It was fascinating when I could locate them in a wider context and it became a sort of hobby to collect and document vintage photographs. Moreover, I have grown up surrounded by some wonderful raconteurs, especially on my maternal side, who have been witness to significant events in the last century and have been comrade in arms to some extraordinary individuals of Assam. I was all ears to such stories, which have been lost to the world for lack of minstrels to sing them.
It was therefore natural that I should take up history when I went to Delhi University for my higher studies. I was fortunate to have been taught by three renowned teachers at Ramjas College: Sudhakar Singh, Hari Sen and Mukul Mangalik, who made studying history exciting. They imparted skills like how to sift different accounts to come up with a complex picture, how to work with lots of different kinds of sources and how to present stories which are compelling but true.
It was also in Delhi that the seeds of Vintage Assam were sown. I had become aware of the stereotypes that people in Delhi and its neighbouring areas hold about the cultures and people of Northeast India in general and Assam in particular. But rather than seeing this a bad light, I began brainstorming with my friends about ways to educate people about the history of Assam and while doing so I learnt a lot about it myself. A digital platform was proposed and the website was designed accordingly.
Soon after I returned to Assam in 2015, interviews with prominent collectors and historians were conducted, family archives were explored and other material related to the history of undivided Assam were consulted. I visited a number of places for my research and encountered people who were kind enough to grant me access to their treasured private collection. A significant part of the collection was displayed at an exhibition held in Guwahati.
I joined the Tata Trusts Art Conservation Initiative as an art conservator-restorer in 2019 and I am currently working in Kolkata. The stint in Kolkata has been helpful, because along with the practice of conservation and restoration of art objects, I have also been able to trace materials related to Assam history in the city. It is noteworthy that the ‘secular pilgrimage’ to erstwhile Calcutta in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had led to the growth of a culturally conscious literati in Assam which inspired a number of creative endeavours.
Collecting memories is not easy. How are you going about it?
It was certainly not easy when I started the initiative. I knew very few people in Assam and I had spent a considerable time away. There were instances when I tried to strike up a conversation with collectors and historians, but didn’t have much luck. But I had no inhibitions of meeting people and took it up as a challenge to make people aware of the need for democratisation and digitisation of historical knowledge. Few collectors and families granted me access to their private collection, while others simply refused to do so. It took time for me to earn their trust; but once I did, there was no looking back. I also began writing on our tangible heritage in vernacular newspapers as well as The Assam Tribune, which was received well by the readers. Many of them invited me to their homes and readily agreed to donate photographs, letters and other material. Perhaps they felt that this was long overdue and I could see a genuine interest among them for heritage conservation.
Tell us a little about one or two astounding discoveries that you have made, be it artefacts, manuscripts, or even architectural findings.
I have been able to collect a number of photographs, oral history narratives, documents and artefacts important for the study of the socio-cultural history of Assam.
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Few memorable discoveries that I recall at present are – an albumen silver print of the first graduate of Upper Assam and pioneering tea planter Jagannath Barooah, a cassette containing perhaps the only recorded interview of world-renowned Orientalist and famously reticent scholar, Krishnakanta Handique, a notebook belonging to legendary antiquarian Benudhar Sharma, letters written by luminaries like Sir Edward Gait, Lakshminath Bezbaroa, Hemchandra Goswami and anthropologist J.P. Mills, first edition copy of Dr. Suryya Kumar Bhuyan’s remarkable biography of India’s fifth ICS and the first Barrister from Northeast India, Anundoram Borooah et al.
Any personal experience that struck a special chord?
One episode that I often love to recall is when I found photographs of an Assamese man and his Burmese spouse, taken in Rangoon in 1945. It belonged to a nonagenarian named Pradip Kumar Dutta, who was bed-ridden when I met him. I went to meet him after I read his memoir, where besides writing about his long career in the tea industry, he had also mentioned an interesting episode. Soon after joining the tea industry, Mr. Dutta started saving money to fulfill a longtime wish. It was to meet his estranged brother, who had run away to Burma and settled there when he was a child. After spending a few anxious days in Rangoon, he did manage to trace his brother who had by then assumed the name of Mangthang and was staying in Kewa in Upper Burma. It was a hair-raising experience!
When he returned, he brought home two photographs of his brother, sister-in-law and their child as memorabilia. I reminded him about the photographs that day and it bought a smile to his wrinkled face. But soon he said with a sigh, “Oh, dear, I have misplaced the photographs.” I told him not to worry and after sometime took leave to head home.
But as I was leaving, I heard a faint call from behind. The helper came out hurriedly and told me to wait. Dutta had suddenly remembered and told the helper that the photographs were kept inside a green trunk in the storeroom, and immediately sent her to fetch me. I again went inside and waited for some time in the drawing room. The storeroom was adjacent to the drawing room and I could see the lady making a frantic search for the trunk. I too joined in after sometime and after half an hour, the green-coloured trunk was found. As soon as it was opened, the lady heaved a sigh of relief and I was elated seeing the folding picture frame. In one photo was Dutta’s brother holding his son in arms and in the other photo was his spouse holding a bouquet of white flowers.
How easy/difficult is it to convince people to share their memories/memorable things?
It is certainly not easy when you are talking to a stranger. Putting them at ease so that it is a free-flowing conversation is a difficult task. People like to talk about things that they can relate to and the interviewee has to be patient as well as curious to listen to different perspectives on things. But once they are comfortable, they will churn out one memorable story after another. I have rendezvoused with people with varying tempers and attitudes, but the conversations have been mostly productive. My only regret is that some of them did not live to read the pieces that I wrote with the help of their narratives.
How are you integrating the concept of restoration into the findings you’ve unearthed?
I am a professional art conservator-restorer and I understand that in order to preserve our heritage, documentation has to be followed by conservation and restoration, i.e. a scientific treatment of objects so as to prolong their life by many years. Knowledge of the material and the procedures for conservation has helped me in ensuring that photographs, audio cassettes, artefacts and other materials such as manuscripts that I have collected and digitised are in stable condition and kept in a conducive environment.
Again my findings on the evolution of Assam type architecture was helpful when I undertook the refurbishment of a heritage building, situated in the outskirts of Jorhat. Integrating the concept of conservation and restoration was therefore extremely crucial for the survival of the materials unearthed.